Iranian scientist indicted by US arrives back in Iran

An Iranian scientist, who was earlier imprisoned on charges of stealing trade secrets, has been released by a US court and has returned home. The Iranians maintain that this is not a prisoner exchange of any sort. The relationship between both sides, which was never stellar to begin with, has been rapidly deteriorating recently.

Iranian scientist freed

Iranian scientist Sirous Asgari has been freed by US and arrived back in Iran, Iranian media reported Wednesday. The scientist had earlier been indicted by a US court for stealing trade secrets in 2016, which was, at the time, also a hit to Iran’s budding nuclear research program.

The Tasnim, ISNA and Mehr news agencies all carried the same photograph on their Telegram accounts of Asgari, wearing a face mask against the coronavirus, being reunited with his family.

A US court had in November cleared Asgari of charges of stealing trade secrets in 2016 while he was on an academic visit to Ohio from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology.

The 59-year-old told British newspaper The Guardian in March that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was holding him at a Louisiana detention centre without basic sanitation and refusing to let him return to Iran despite his exoneration.

Iranian scientist’s freedom is not a part of prisoner exchange: Iran

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi on Tuesday denied Asgari’s release was part of a prisoner exchange and said “he was freed after being exonerated”, adding that his return was delayed because he was infected with COVID-19.

“Mr. Asgari was stranded in America for a while because of (being infected with) the coronavirus and the situation with flights,” he said.

The State Department has yet to respond to a request to comment on his release.

However Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of US homeland security, said on Twitter that the US had been “trying to deport” Asgari since last year but that it had been “stalled every step of the way by the Iranian government”.

“We have been trying to deport Asghari since last year, being stalled every step of the way by the Iranian government. We wish Iran was so enthusiastic to get its illegal nationals back as they would have us all believe…” said Cuccinelli.

Prisoner swaps: a common US-Iran exercise

Both Iran and the United States hold a number of each other’s nationals and they have recently called for them to be released amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iran is battling what is the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the virus, while the US has reported the highest total number of deaths worldwide from the disease.

Read more: Without preconditions? Iran is prepared to negotiate prisoner swap with the US

The Islamic republic is holding at least five Americans and the US had 19 Iranians in detention prior to Asgari’s release, according to a list compiled by AFP based on official statements and media reports.

Earlier, an Iranian government spokesperson has said that the country is prepared to negotiate a complete prisoner swap with the US. The news comes after reports of talks about exchanging two detainees infected with Covid-19.

“We are ready to exchange all prisoners and we are prepared to discuss this issue without any preconditions, but the US has not responded yet,” Ali Rabiei said, as cited by Khabaronline.

The two have at times swapped prisoners despite having no formal diplomatic relations.

Iran exchanged Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in January 2016 for seven Iranians held in the US, on the day the nuclear agreement entered into force.

In December, Iran freed Xiyue Wang, a US academic, in exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani and said it was open to further swaps.

Americans and dual nationals currently known to be held by Iran include US Navy veteran Michael R. White, Siamak Namazi along with his father Baquer, Morad Tahbaz, Gholam Reza Shahini, and Karan Vafadari.

Most of the Iranians held in the United States are dual nationals charged with evading sanctions by either exporting goods to Iran or using the US financial system.

Iranian scientist freed amid burgeoning tensions between the two rivals

Tensions between Tehran and Washington escalated in 2018, after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

Read more: Iran’s Foreign Ministry tweets about Floyd protests; takes stab at US Govt

The sworn enemies have also appeared to come to the brink of a direct conflict twice in the past year.

The most recent was in January when Iran fired a barrage of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.

But Trump refrained from taking any military action in response.

Iranian scientist freed but US-Iran tensions higher than ever

The United States had recently decided to end nuclear waivers for Iran, which allowed firms to conduct development of Iranian nuclear reactors. The decision seemed designed to tighten the US “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran since Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal two years ago. That deal had provided Iran with relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Washington had until now issued waivers to allow companies, primarily from Russia, to keep carrying out the nuclear work of the agreement without risking legal ramifications in the US economy.

It will end waivers that allowed the modification of the heavy water reactor in Arak, which prevented it from using plutonium for military use, as well as the export of spent and scrap research reactor fuel.

Read more: US “a loser” for abandoning Iran nuclear deal: Rouhani

Sources said the US would provide 60 days to wind down international activities – which were designed to make the Iranian nuclear programme less capable of producing weapons – at the sites.

They also said it would extend for 90 days a waiver allowing international support for the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Kamalvandi said ending the waivers would not impact Iran’s continued work on the Arak reactor and “other equipment” by Iranian experts.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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